Why teach? For Lindsey Bird, it’s a way to advance social justice and equality

Lindsey Bird earned her single-subject teaching credential from Bradman University.

Lindsey Bird

When Lindsey Bird graduated from Chico State with a bachelor’s degree in social science, she opted out of heading straight into another classroom, even though she had often considered teaching as a career.

Instead she chose to get a little world experience where she discovered that the grind of sales and corporate life at a bank reinforced what she wanted.

“I wanted a career where I would make a difference more than I wanted money or fame. I wanted a job where I would feel good about it,” she said.

Bird returned to her roots in California’s Central Valley and enrolled in Chapman University College/Brandman University’s teacher credential program at the Modesto campus, earning her single subject credential. Her student teaching assignment at Grace M. Davis High School in Modesto turned into a full-time position in August 2004.

Because she had a CLAD certificate (Crosscultural, Language, and Academic Development Certificate), Bird taught English learner students, a label applied to students with a full range of English skills, including some who had spent their entire school careers in the U.S. and others with both limited schooling and almost no understanding of English. Bird and others thought there had to be a better approach than lumping everyone together and proposed the Language Institute as an academy program at the high school geared toward recent immigrants.

Lindsey Bird with a few of the students she teaches at the Language Institute, an academy within Grace M. Davis High School in Modesto, California.

Lindsey Bird with a few of the students she teaches at the Language Institute, an academy within Grace M. Davis High School in Modesto, California.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Although school budgets were healthy when she was hired, by 2008-09 school year, pink slips started arriving. “I wasn’t a new teacher. It was a shock,” said Bird, describing the difficult period at schools throughout California. She was also in the middle of helping develop the institute.

“When you really put your heart and soul into it, and then the reality hits that you could be bumped over or replaced, it also affects the likelihood of the program moving forward,” said Bird.

Fortunately for Bird and the many students who have since benefited from the program she helped create, this story has a happy ending. Bird and the Language Institute are thriving.

The Language Institute serves high school students from throughout Modesto who come from 34 countries and have 18 languages other than English as their native tongues.

“Our program really honors that spirit of emphasis on English immersion. We let them access their native languages, but all instruction is in English,” said Bird. Through the Language Institute, students get help learning English and catch up with their peers academically, despite often having large gaps in their education.

Early on, teachers in the institute discovered that some of the things they thought were behavior problems stemmed from an inability to express in English what a student was dealing with at home or school.

Bird remembers one student in particular whose crossed arms, angry expression and lack of attention could easily have been labeled as “behavior” problems.

“We told her what her body language was saying to us,” said Bird. When the student began to trust them, they learned that she had escaped family drug and physical abuse in Tijuana to live with a grandmother. She had thought she was coming north to work, but was shocked to learn she would have to go to school because she was only 17.

Because Bird and other teachers were able to work past the “behavior” issues, the student went on to graduate from high school (despite arriving with no transcripts), graduated from junior college and is now attending San Diego State. “She wants to be a teacher,” said Bird.

Opening up those kinds of opportunities are what inspired Bird to become a teacher.

“I was born and raised in the Central Valley. From kindergarten through high school, I shared classrooms with immigrants, English learners, so I saw some of the inequities and lack of opportunities. A lot of them did go to college, but they had to take a long, hard route. I want to make our area more equitable. The Central Valley has a long way to go in confronting those systems (that promote inequity). It’s easier to judge people than see it as an opportunity to make changes,” said Bird.

If it seems like it was all easy going after seven years and multiple group awards and personal accolades, Bird reminds herself of the political battles fought to get the institute started.

Lindsey Bird and Ronza Sampuor, who nominated Bird for the Carlston Family Foundation Teacher of the Year honor. Sampuor came from Iraq via Syria in 2009.

Lindsey Bird and Ronza Sampuor, who nominated Bird for the Carlston Family Foundation Teacher of the Year honor. Sampuor came from Iraq via Syria in 2009.

“We were questioned every step of the way. But those battles were worth it. The students put in the hard to work to prove us right. Without that it would have just been an idea. It’s more,” she said.

The students, in turn, showed their appreciation of Bird by nominating her for the Carlston Family Foundation Teacher of the Year, which she was awarded in November.

“It’s a huge honor and my favorite aspect is it was a student nomination,” said Bird. The foundation interviews additional students after receiving a nomination and gives copies of those interviews to the winners. Bird said she read them all with tears in her eyes.

“My advice for anybody considering a career as an educator is to really have a passion for the student before your content – especially at the secondary level. Often we’re drawn to teaching because of the subject matter, but it’s pretty evident in the first few months that not every student is going to share your passion for that subject. But if you focus on the student and creating eye-opening experiences – have they learned something, have they grown? Then you’ve done your job.”

To see some of the more success stories from the Language Institute, visit their Facebook page.

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